Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: 2010!

I'm sure some people are going to look at the title to this entry and wonder why I'm plugging next year as a "Hidden Treasure." But 2010 is actually the 1984 sequel to the critically-acclaimed science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In my opinion, 2010 has always been unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor. While not as ground-breaking as Stanley Kubrick's work, it is still one of the most solid and thought-provoking works of science fiction put to film. Its director, Peter Hyam, made the wise decision not to try and emulate Kubrick but instead to create his own vision of the future using Clarke's sequel story.

As the title may suggest, it is nine years after the ill fated Discovery mission to Jupiter, and what happened is shrouded in mystery. Doctor Heywood Floyd (Roy Schieder, in probably his best role after Jaws) is selected to put together the American contingent of a joint American/Russian mission to the giant planet to find out what happened. And by 'Russian', I mean 'Soviet'; remember the film was made in 1984 and no one expected at the time that the USSR wasn't going to be around in the 21st Century. But watching the film nowadays, its just easier, at least for myself, to simply think of them as Russians.

The Russian-built Leonov spends two years in transit to Jupiter. As the vessel approaches, Floyd and his fellow Americans are wakened from cryosleep when the derelict Discovery is spotted abandoned but undamaged in a decaying orbit around the Jovian moon Io. The vessel is boarded and reactivated, including a befuddled and amnesiac Hal 9000. Apparently the AI has no memory of turning against the crew, and seems at least for now to be back to his old mellow, non-homicidal self.

Then both ships turn toward what everyone really came to Jupiter for: the alien Monolith. But that is only the first of many mysteries that pile up for the crew in quick succession: chlorophyll-bearing life forms are spotted on Europa; a mysterious but growing dark spot appears on Jupiter; and what might or might not be Dave Bowman is spotted on the Discovery, telling of 'something wonderful' about to happen in a few days. But if the Leonov and the Discovery is still at Jupiter when this 'something wonderful' happens, everyone aboard will die. And, oh yeah, WWIII is about to break out on Earth.

The movie takes all those plot strings and ties them together in a tight, crisp, storytelling package, and what that 'something wonderful' is at the end of the film is indeed quite a jaw-dropper. Not in the mind-bending psychedelic sort of way in the first film, but in much more visceral demonstration of just how far above humanity the aliens are.

Discounting what the insanely advanced monolith makers do, the science and space flight shown in the film is very hard-science and realistic. I especially like how it was one of the first movies to really show just how soil-your-pants scary real space travel may be for future travelers. One example is with the Leonov's fiery aerobraking maneuver to insert itself into Jupiter orbit. When we first see the interplanetary vessel, it looks bold, blocky, and impressive. But as it screams through Jupiter's outer atmosphere behind inflatable shielding, it looks like little more than a glowing dust speck against the immense horizon of the gas giant. This is intercut with shots on board, as Dr. Floyd and unnamed (but very cute!) female Russian crewmember hold onto each other in mutual terror as the ship seems ready to shake apart, even though he can't speak Russian nor she English.

And let me as a scifi technophile wax for a bit about the Leonov, one of the most smartly-designed fictional spaceships I've seen. Most futuristic spaceships are designed more to be sleek eyecandy than anything else, but the Leonov looks like an interplanetary vessel that might actually fly some day. The designers' attention to detail is apparent, from the ship's large outrigger communication dish to the twin, counter-rotating crew sections.

Also well done is the resolution of what happened to HAL 9000, and the intelligent computer's ultimate fate. His breakdown in the first film is explained, and fears of a second episode is one of the many points of tension as the story builds toward a climax, especially after he starts talking to apparent ghosts.

Perhaps one disappointment in the film is that the aliens go from unknowable enigmas in 2001, to being merely mysterious and a bit creepy here. That's inevitable as their motivation and methods become clearer in this film. I'm not giving much away by saying that they seem interested in seeding the universe with life, and that humanity (which the first movie implied were helped toward sentience by the Monoliths) was just one of their many interests along these lines.

If all this sounds like your kind of movie, go HERE for a copy of the DVD. The real 2010 is almost upon us. How better to celebrate it than by exploring an alternate version, one of thrilling space exploration, terrifying discoveries, and extraterrestrial contact?

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